Transcript

235:

The Balloon Goes Up
Transcript

Originally aired 03.21.2003

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

Anthony Swofford was an infantryman in the Marines back during the 1991 Gulf War. And we asked him to watch the television coverage for us once this war got under way and tell us his impressions.

Anthony Swofford

Oh I'm thinking it's strange to be in my living room this time. And this morning there was the first scenes of the oil well fires burning as some Marines are up near them. And that brought the whole scene pretty close to me.

Ira Glass

For a civilian watching this coverage today, I have to say, I feel like, oh, I'm right there. It feels so real. For you watching this coverage, does it all seemed fantastically fake?

Anthony Swofford

Yeah, it does. It feels made up and scripted.

Ira Glass

Now you brought along a recording of some of the things you taped off TV. Let's just play one of those.

Anthony Swofford

There's this one great scene of the wild man on CNN who-- he's moving with the seventh cavalry, and he's talking about "great waves of steel crushing the Iraqis."

Cnn Reporter

You don't sleep. You really don't sleep out here. Of course you're on an adrenaline high. But racing across the desert, you know that you're traveling toward the jaws of what could be a major military battle.

Anthony Swofford

He's dramatically narrating what currently from the video is a totally un-dramatic and incredibly common event, which is vehicles moving across the desert. But he's projecting this romantic vision of what the battle will be.

Cnn Reporter

Then the army is going to kill them. Their goal is to find the enemy, grab him by the nose they say. And this is according to one senior officer, after grabbing him by the nose, we don't let the Iraqis go anywhere. The seventh cavalry's mission is to find the Iraqis and to persuade them to give up. And if they don't give up, then they will be pounded, according to the officers we're travelling with.

Anthony Swofford

Just because the tanks are barreling across the desert on their way to Baghdad, that doesn't mean that they're going to roll over and grab the enemy by the nose.

Ira Glass

This would be an example of one of those moments that you find to be completely fake.

Anthony Swofford

Yeah completely fake.

Ira Glass

By the way this is This American Life from WBEZ Chicago, distributed by Public Radio International. This guy Anthony Swofford has been on our program before, reading from his memoir about fighting in the Persian gulf war, which is called Jarhead. He says he finds it hard to watch the coverage of this war now. He thinks it's fine for camera crews to go out with the soldiers and all, but he says that to him, it just seems voyeuristic in this way that just gives him the creeps. In battle, he says, you're completely naked in this way. It's so extreme. And he says the cameras can't really capture what it's like to be there anyway.

Anthony Swofford

The missing element thus far is fear and the unknown. Everything seems certain when there's a camera filming this.

Ira Glass

You've written about how you and the other Marines during the Persian Gulf War who you were with were told to say pretty much next to nothing to reporters. Keep everything positive. You were given little scripts to say. When you watch the interviews that are now being broadcast on TV, do you feel like you're seeing soldiers spinning the way that you were trained to?

Anthony Swofford

Oh I'm certain of it. What's coming out of their mouths is scripted. And it's what they're asked to say. And it's also part of what they're asked to believe, and they believe some of it. But--

Ira Glass

Can you think of any particular moment where you've seen somebody talking and you thought, yeah, that's right. That's just the line we give them.

Anthony Swofford

Yeah, well this morning there was an embed sitting with a Marine. And they were a forward force that had had nine gas calls over the evening. And having nine false gas calls is incredibly frustrating, and it pisses you off. And you're cussing. You're saying who's that idiot who called gas again? I'm tired of putting this thing on.

Ira Glass

Calling gas meaning somebody said gas is incoming and so put on your gas gear.

Anthony Swofford

Yeah, gas is incoming. So the reporter asked the young marine that. "How are you feeling? We've put our gas masks on nine times now? How does this make you feel? And the young guy said, "It's just what we do. We put our gas masks on." That's all he's going to give. He's not going to say, "Oh this sucks man. I'm tired of putting this thing on."

Ira Glass

Well today on our radio program, as bombs go off and soldiers are on the move, we have stories about this war that's just starting. I'm Ira Glass. Our program today in six acts. David Sedaris files for us from Paris. Sarah Vowell tells the story of the first time that the United States went overseas and attacked a country that had not attacked us first, a country where 100 years later, things are still pretty dreadful.

In preparation for today's show, we gave out audio recorders to a few soldiers who are part of the invasion force going into Iraq. We probably will not get the recordings back and on the air for you for a few months. But we do have one first person account of what's happening, an email from one soldier. Plus other stores trying to make sense of what is happening right now. Stay with us.

Act One. Bombs Over Baghdad.

Ira Glass

Act One, Bombs Over Baghdad. When it comes to the massive bombing of Baghdad that has started, all of us following the news heard from the US military. We've heard from reporters in Baghdad. But a while back I spoke with an Iraqi named Issam Shukri, who lived in Baghdad during the first Persian Gulf War. And he talked about what it was like to despise Saddam Hussein, but also not be so crazy about getting bombed by the United States. He remembers clearly how he learned that war had started back then.

Issam Shukri

Me and my wife used to work in two different rooms in the same building. And she always listened to a Kuwaiti station, the national Kuwaiti station, because it has some more fun songs and mixture of songs and stuff like that. But anyway, so she was trying to find that station but she couldn't. And she said, "Issam, it seems there is something wrong with the radio. I can't find that station." So I start to flip through the stations, and I put it on our Baghdad station. And boy, I started to hear the marches and the military music.

Ira Glass

Did that automatically mean you knew that there was trouble?

Issam Shukri

Yes, that was the government's announcement in music to times of trouble. I heard about the invasion by dashing out to the street. And I said, what happened? And people in a lower voice, "Well Saddam invaded Kuwait. And he's calling people to go and fight over there at the front." And I sort of stroked my head, and I said, not again.

Ira Glass

Had you served in the Iran Iraq war?

Issam Shukri

Yes, I served for three years actually.

Ira Glass

In that war of course, an incredibly bloody war, estimates of the dead range up to 1.5 million. Iraq used chemical weapons in the war. Could you talk about what it felt like to know that you were being called up again to fight in this conflict for somebody who you didn't support?

Issam Shukri

Well, I don't know. Ira, it's the most individualistic as well as a collective miserable experience you will ever have. Because you are facing actually not one enemy. You are facing two enemies: one in your back, and one in your face. And when you turn to run away, you see the back enemy trying to shoot you.

Ira Glass

That is your--

Issam Shukri

That is the government of Iraq, right. I couldn't picture myself putting on the same uniform and fighting for a bloody regime again. So that was my feeling. And the next day, I had to go to that military center and join the forces. But as I was an architect, I was actually allocated to the back of the front, inside the city of Baghdad.

Ira Glass

Oh, so you were very lucky?

Issam Shukri

I was actually. But some of my classmates were sent to out to the front. And some of them faced their deaths there. They were killed.

Ira Glass

Did they have the same kinds of feelings about Saddam that you did, that they didn't like the regime?

Issam Shukri

Ira, 100%. 100% I will tell you.

Ira Glass

Talk about the air strikes. Could you talk about what that was like? You were in Baghdad when the US started its 38 day air campaign against Iraq.

Issam Shukri

Right. I was in my home with my wife and my three year old son. And I was renovating my house. I was like two years, three years married to my wife. And I was dividing my family home into two little homes. One is for my sister, and one is for my family. And as a show of emotional support, we all slept-- we had mattresses on the floor in my living room, which had doors open because I was renovating at the time. I've brought a lot of paint to paint my living room. So anyway, we slept on that night, and the night of the 17 of January, in my living room. And we kissed each other, and we fell asleep.

And exactly at 2:00 AM, we all woke up and the ground was shaking violently. And it was like a deep, deep echo happening coming down from the ground. And the streetlights were on at the time. And in five minutes, all the lights were out. And at that minute, we were certain that this is the war, and we're back again. We are facing death all over again. I personally, Ira, I'm not ashamed of this. I started to shake. My hands couldn't hold anything. I grabbed my--

Ira Glass

Take a second.

Issam Shukri

I grabbed my little kid, and he was crying. He didn't know what was happening. I remember my son when he heard the B52 over his head. I put my hand on his heart, and I felt his heart bumping like crazy. And ironically, again I went to the washroom like five, six times in five minutes. You know when you have this stress? I needed to go to the washroom.

As mundane as this is, but I need to tell the Americans about it. The fear is very, very frightening when you're expecting your death. It's much more frightening when it happens suddenly, if you're asleep or if you're embarking on your work or whatever. But when you're expecting it minute by minute, and second by second sometimes, it becomes like torture.

So we were literally tortured. And we started to wonder with the streets. I looked around in my neighborhood-- and by the way our neighborhood looks pretty much like any American or Canadian neighborhood: row houses or individual homes with front yards and very nicely done. And people that have the same qualities of life. The difference is that they live in constant fear.

Ira Glass

And you were with your three year old boy.

Issam Shukri

Right, and well actually, I was very worried about this guy because he was very young. And when fear-- when you start your life by experiencing fear and bombing, it would leave scars in your soul for the rest of your life. And I think he's fine now, but he kept asking me, "Why are they doing this to us? What have we done?" And I couldn't find the right answer because he was very young at the time. I couldn't go into deep political analysis of what's going on. But I told him, "There is a bad guy who did something wrong. And there are some judges of the world who wanted to take the law in their hands. And then they came and punished him." And then I stopped for one second. But then he said, "But they are punishing us. But we are scared. He's not scared."

Ira Glass

Did he ask why are they bombing all of us if they're just trying to get this bad man?

Issam Shukri

Well Ira, I didn't try to justify what the American forces were doing, to tell you the truth. I'm not going to polish my words. I told him that-- after days and days of bombing, I first told him that, "Well there are some judges who are going to catch this man. And he's an outlaw, and they're going to put him in jail." I tried to make things like a story to his age.

And then after that, I started to feel frustrated myself because I saw people slaughtered in front of my eyes. And Saddam comes out on the screen laughing with his ugly, ugly face. So I started to tell him, "Well those judges are sometimes more severe, and sometimes they hit hard. The people themselves will suffer some injuries, but again, that's OK. Probably in the end they will catch him." But it never happened. And neither in Iraq nor in Afghanistan, nor anywhere in the world.

Ira Glass

Was there a part of you which hoped that the Americans would succeed and liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein.

Issam Shukri

To tell you the truth, I hoped for that. I hoped for that. But I felt deep, deep in heart that they're not going to catch this person. I've always doubted that, and not only me. All the people in Iraq doubted that because there's always history that tells you lessons. And there is the fresh memory when Saddam bombed chemically, used the chemical weapons against Halabcha, which is a northern, very, very peaceful city in 1988, and killed 5,000 people in two hours. Nobody in the West raised a finger. Nobody called him a terrorist. Nobody called him a tyrant.

But when he touched a state that is a strong ally to the West, a state that's very rich in oil, everybody-- So we didn't really trust the West. It's a feeling that those people do not care about other nations.

Ira Glass

And what did you think about the United States at that time? Did you hate the United States for the bombing? Did you feel a mix of feelings about it because you hoped that they would come in?

Issam Shukri

I didn't like the United States as a government, as a military force, not the people. I saw cruise missiles falling on buildings, but some of these buildings were inhabited by civilians. So I do not hate. I do not hate. I don't like to use this word, but I was mad. I was angry at the United States government because it uses a lot of force, a lot of force, inhuman force to punish very poor people.

Ira Glass

And were you also angry at Saddam for putting you all in this position?

Issam Shukri

Oh, in that respect, we hated Saddam. I would definitely use that word.

Ira Glass

Issam Shukri is watching the war from his home in Toronto, where he lives and works as an architect. He has two sisters, four aunts and uncles and many nieces and nephews in Baghdad. He last talked with them all a few days ago. He hasn't been able to reach them since because the phones have been bad. He doesn't know how they're doing.

Act Two.

Ira Glass

Act Two. Over the last few weeks, our program has been in contact with a number of American soldiers in this war. One of the ones who expressed an interest in giving an account of what is happening to him is first lieutenant Tice Ridley. He's been in the army for seven years. He's 30 years old. He's the one we're able to put on the air this week because he's the one who's continued to have access to email. He's someone whose job is to deal with the press. He's a public relations officer at the Coalition Press Information Center in Kuwait City.

What you're about to hear are taken from the emails that he has sent to friends and family, and emails he has sent to our program. We asked him to stay away from the official army stories that he deals with in his job and just talk about what it's like to be there. His emails are read for us by actor Tom Wright.

Tom Wright

February 27, 2003. Dear friends and family. Last night we arrived in Kuwait City, which is nine hours ahead of you guys so I'm actually living in the future. If you want to know what happens, just let me know. When we got off the plane, it still looked a lot like Texas, but there was no mistaking where we were. There were soldiers with weapons everywhere. The buses we rode from the airport in had curtains covering all the windows to prevent sniper fire. And we were escorted by soldiers with fully loaded, crew-served weapons, really big guns mounted on their vehicles. Sniper fire is common here.

On our first night, my vehicle broke down during a convoy, and the security force with those big guns was unable to turn around to assist my driver, a 19 year old private, and me. We'd been briefed on what to do, but the plan failed because security was unable to stop or turn around right away. We were sitting there alone, in a foreign land with street signs in Arabic, not knowing whom to trust. What do you do?

After assessing the situation, it was my decision to keep moving no matter how slow. I didn't want us to appear to be an easy sniper target. After about 15 minutes, but what seemed like an eternity, the security force was able to turn around and catch up with us, prepare the vehicle and guide us back into the convoy.

After we'd been returned to our comfort zone with the rest of our convoy, I asked my driver if he had been scared. And initially, he said no. He then asked me if I had been afraid. I replied, "Yeah, I was scared as hell." I told him that scared is good, as long as you don't let panic set in, because fear will keep you alert and alive. I saw that in some movie somewhere, but I think it's true. The private then told me that he had been afraid but didn't want me to know. I would go to war with a solider like that any day. Oh wait, we're already here.

Friday, March 7, 2003. Around 5:00, Murphy showed his ugly little head and the phone started ringing. A soldier was injured pretty badly in an accident, and I got the message. It's not the first time I've gotten a message of this nature, but it was the first time I looked at the name. That made a world of difference. It was no one I knew, but looking at a name and a hometown personalized it. That is something I have to learn to deal with.

Monday, March 17, 2003. I met Ted Koppel the other day. Nice guy, little worn-looking though. I told him to have his people call my people and maybe, just maybe, we could do lunch after the war. Yesterday I was interviewed by Jay Levine of Channel 2, Chicago. That was cool. I've received email from some of you saying that you saw the interview. He asked me how I felt about the protesters and political debate. What I really wanted to say was, "Those [BLEEP] need to go to Saddam Hussein's house and try their protesting in front of one of his billion dollar palaces. Or maybe they can go sing Kumbaya with the bastard. And just maybe he'll stop mass murdering, invading his neighbors and gassing people.

As far as the political debate goes, I think those countries that keep saying more time don't have soldiers sitting in the desert longing to be with their families. Not that we're war mongers, but most of us didn't give up our lives so that we could come to the desert to play dominoes. Hell, I don't even know how to play freaking dominoes.

However, while wearing the uniform, I represent the United States Army, so I had to keep it professional and say, "I really don't think about it much." With that in mind, I must say farewell my friends. Please think about these things as you form your opinions on this possible war. We see a lot of protest on the news here, but if you see someone protesting, ask them if they know the history. And if so, why aren't they protesting Saddam Hussein? Love you all, Tice. PS, if you haven't done already, I would fill up my gas tank today if I were you.

Tuesday, March 18, 2003. A little over 24 hours ago, President George W. Bush gave a powerful speech, and we all wondered if the wait was over. 48 hours was his answer, and I actually breathed a sigh of relief. This is my first war, and in my inexperience, I thought that as soon as the President left the podium, planes would start flying overhead and the war would have begun. He gave them 48 hours.

Thursday, March 20, 2003. It is now 2:55 on the morning of March 20. The 48 hour deadline is up in one hour and five minutes, and all's quiet. One of the first things I was told as I started my shift was that Iraq had placed artillery pieces along the border with Kuwait within striking distance of us. This was a definite concern of ours, and you could see by the mood that it was at the back of everyone's mind. The initial fear is of a direct hit, but even if we didn't get hit directly, the chemical vapors might drift our way. Tracy and I read from the Bible together every night. We also take turns reading the 91st Psalm to each other. That's a long story. But a unit from World War Two read that psalm every day together, and while all the other units around them were being wiped out, none of them got a scratch.

At approximately 22:00, Tracy came down for our nightly reading of the 91st Psalm. As I reentered the office, there was a flurry of phone calls. We found out that the artillery pieces that were within range of us had been destroyed by coalition air forces. The Air Force officer that happened to be in the section at the time yelled, "The Air Force is always saving you guy's asses." The information was soon confirmed, and we breathed a sigh of relief. Also, we heard that 17 Iraqi soldiers had turned themselves in. We were trying to get confirmation. My first thought was, 17 down and only 400,000 to go.

Ira Glass

Tom Wright, reading the letters of first lieutenant Tice Ridley in Kuwait City. Coming up, David Sedaris reports from France, Sarah Vowell, and some lessons of war from thousands of years ago. How people thought about war back then, how we might think about it now. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, The Balloon Goes Up, stories about this new war with Iraq. Much of Europe and the Arab world still oppose this war. Protests continue. Is the world just going to hate the United States now in some way we've never seen before in our lifetimes? Well, writer David Sedaris lives in one of the countries that oppose military action most fiercely, France. He says the answer to that question is complicated.

David Sedaris

For the past several weeks, I've been been getting these late night calls. The phone rings, and when I answer the person on the other end will say, "Thank God, are you all right?" I wonder how they knew I had the radio perched on the lip of the bathtub, and then I'll realize that they're talking about the French American thing, which is a lot nastier in the United States than it is here. The assumption is that, mirroring the cafeteria in the US House of Representatives, France has banished the word "American," retitling videos to read "Liberty Gigolo" or "Freedom Graffiti." But that's not the case. Neither are radio stations hiring bulldozers to flatten hamburgers and low-fat muffins and pictures of the American president.

The French people I know are saddened by the name calling, but not enough to touch a muffin or a hamburger, much less a picture of George Bush. On September 11, 2001, Jacques Chirac announced that we are all Americans. A year and a half later, things have changed. Chirac threatened to use his UN veto, and the Bush administration announced that it could no longer take this country seriously. But how seriously did the current administration ever take France?

While the Clinton ambassador was engaged and well regarded, Bush appointed a former fast food processor who does not even speak the language. Bush doesn't come to France to talk with Chirac. He goes to England to talk about Chirac. And every time he opens his mouth, he makes it just that much harder to hold your head up. While in the United States, the President might make his own kind of sense, to most of the outside world he sounds like a bully and a braggart. Here is a man who actually failed to win a popularity contest against Saddam Hussein. And that's Europe's fault?

I'm told that France is dangerous now, that Americans are being spat upon. But neither me nor my friends have experienced any hostility whatsoever. Talk to a French person about the war, and they'll say that while they dislike the current administration, they understand there's a difference between the American people and the American President. Six Feet Under they love, Tony Blair they grudgingly respect, but George Bush, that's another matter. If I did not share their view, I suppose there might be some discussion, but I can't imagine that it would result in saliva.

I have an American friend who speaks French perfectly and leads tours of Paris. As late as February, her spring schedule was packed. Then one by one, all of her upcoming parties phoned to cancel saying it just didn't seem safe. The only exception was a man from Wyoming, who said he would come as long as my friend could arrange for an armed bodyguard who would accompany him and his family everywhere they went. My friend explained that guns were not really allowed in the Louvre. And after expressing shock, the man canceled.

I know Americans who have taken to identifying themselves as Canadians, but I'm always afraid that if I try it myself, the other person will have family there and ask me what part of Canada I'm from. There is nothing more pathetic than being ashamed of where you come from. I know this. Still, I look at the American President raising his fist on the front page of Le Monde, and I find myself wondering, is Sacajawea a province? What about Mandingo?

Ira Glass

David Sedaris is the author of several books, including one about his life in France titled Me Talk Pretty One Day.

Act Four. Fighting The Previous War.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Fighting The Previous War. Sarah Vowell has this story about the first time the United States attacked a country that had not attacked us. The first time we invaded a country for the purposes of regime change, which was widely seen as an idealistic act freeing an oppressed people. Here she is.

Sarah Vowell

The congressman from New York said that the United States was right to invade another country in order to "correct the intolerable evils and set up in their place the institutions of enlightened government." The President, who believed we were entrusted with this war by the providence of God, said "It is not a trust we sought. It is a trust from which we will not flinch." An American citizen living in Europe among Europeans opposed to America going to war wrote home that, "it is a worthy thing to fight for one's freedom. It is another sight finer to fight for another man's."

The President was William McKinley, the American citizen, Mark Twain, and the congressman was speaking at the turn of the 20th century and not the 21st. These were the country's good intentions in our first attempt at regime change, the Spanish American War. As the United States embarks on Operation Iraqi Freedom, it's worth looking back on the role we played in creating that bastion of 20th century democracy known as Cuba. American do-gooders fought to liberate the oppressed people of Cuba from the tyranny of Spain. And what can we learn? For starters, the war itself is a snap. It's when the guns get put away and the ink pens come out that the real headaches begin.

The Cuban people suffered at the hands of the Spanish in the 1890s, especially those who were rounded up into concentration camps. American newspapers sensationalized Spanish atrocities, stirring up an idealistic fad for Cuba libre on the part of the American people. The clincher, the hard proof of Spanish evil-doing, was one of those acts that in retrospect might not have happened at all. Historians still disagree.

On February 15, 1898, the American battleship, The Maine, exploded in Havana harbor, killing 254 men. Remember the Maine? War boosters accused the Spanish of bombing the ship and shrieked for a declaration of war. In fact, the evidence was inconclusive then and remains so today. Some historians believe it may have been a freak accident, a coal fire that ignited explosives on board the ship. Just like today, President McKinley had to squeak around that pesky provision in the Constitution that says Congress shall declare war. Congress didn't actually approve the war until it was already under way, but still, it's nice to be asked.

Then, as now, optional wars are fought because there are people in the government who really, really want to fight them. The Paul Wolfowitz of the McKinley administration was the assistant secretary of the Navy, one Theodore Roosevelt. He was part of a group of young wonks from various branches of the government who had been arguing that it was in the American interest to wrench Cuba from the clutches of Spain. They feared what would happen if the iffy Cuban rebels governed themselves. They wanted American companies to get a piece of the Cuban sugar business. And they thought Cuba would be a handy base of operations from which to get cracking on a canal they hoped to one day build in Central America.

Roosevelt wanted all those things, but more than anything, he wanted to fight. He wanted to wear an outfit, I mean uniform. He wanted to use one of his favorite words, adventure. And he wanted these things so badly that once the US declared war on Spain, he resigned as assistant secretary of the Navy, ordered himself a custom-tailored uniform from Brooks Brothers and volunteered to fight as a comparatively lowly lieutenant colonel with the first US volunteer cavalry.

He helped assemble this ragtag regiment of cowboys, Indians, Ivy League graduates, one genuine Dodge City Marshal and a Jew nicknamed Porkchop. They came to be known as The Rough Riders. Roosevelt described them as "men in whose veins the blood stirred with the same impulse which once sent the Vikings oversea."

And how did our Vikings fare? The war was over in four short months. America's first time out in interventionist warfare with the aim of regime change was seen as such a success it became known as The Splendid Little War. Success, hell, if Teddy Roosevelt is to be believed, it was downright fun. In his memoir of his Rough Riders days, he can't stop using the word "delighted."

All fine until the war ended. The very fact that we call it the Spanish American War hints that Cuban sovereignty was a fairly low priority for the McKinley administration. As the Cuban revolutionary hero Jose Marti worried, "Once the United States is in Cuba, who will drive them out?" After the United States signed a treaty with Spain in 1898, we occupied Cuba for the next five years. In 1902, Cuba became nominally independent thanks to an American act of Congress. It was called the Platt amendment, but a better name for it might have been "Buenos Dias Fidel."

It kept Cuba under US protection and gave us the right to intervene in Cuban affairs, which we did for the next half century, re-occupying the country every few years and propping up a series of dictators, crooks and boobs. The last one, a sergeant named Batista, was one of the monsters created in part by American military aid. When the revolution came in 1959, all American businesses in Cuba were nationalized without compensation. "Yankee," said Castro, "go home. And oh, by the way, how do you like them missiles?" Which is to say our clunky post-war policy after the Spanish American War actually led the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation in 1962. And a hundred five years later, Cuba still isn't free.

But back at the beginning of the Spanish American War, like at the beginning of this war, Americans understood that their country's role in the world was changing for good. Immediately after, we fought a not-so-splendid war to take over the Philippines that dragged on for years. Theodore Roosevelt became a national hero thanks to his Rough Rider exploits and was President by 1901. He built the Panama Canal, brokered a peace treaty between Russia and Japan, secured Moroccan independence and sent the great white fleet of the US Navy on tour around the globe to show the world that the US was now a power to contend with. Before long, we were in World War I and the whole country was humming the tune "Over There."

Finally, there's one more side effect of America's first attempt at regime change. The Platt amendment, signed by President McKinley in 1901, required the Cubans to lease land to the US Navy. That base at Guantanamo Bay is currently the home of several hundred Taliban and other prisoners of the War On Terror. I like to believe that if Saddam Hussein is captured, he'll be put in a brig on the USS Theodore Roosevelt and taken to await trial in a cell at Guantanamo Bay.

Ira Glass

Sarah Vowell is author of The Partly Cloudy Patriot and a regular contributor to our program.

[MUSIC - "THE GULF WAR SONG" BY MOXY FURVOUS]

Act Five. What Peacetime Forgets About Wartime.

Ira Glass

Act Five, What Peacetime Forgets About Wartime. In a weekly paper here in Chicago a few years back, The Chicago Reader, a writer named Lee Sandlin wrote a story about what it is that makes wartime different. About the particular psychology of being at war, the things that a country goes through in war that it does not experience any other time. It was a massive historical article. Here's an excerpt, which we ran a few years back but seemed appropriate this weekend. It's read for us by Matt Malloy.

Matt Malloy

Back when the forest still stretched in an unbroken expanse from Scandinavia to the Urals, the Vikings who inhabited its northernmost reaches wrote down their own stories about war. Their legends may have been garish fantasies, cursed rings and enchanted gold and dragon slayers, but when they wrote about battle, they were unsparingly exact. Their sagas still offer the subtlest and most rigorous accounts of the unique psychology of combat.

They knew that the experience of being on a battlefield is fundamentally different from everything else in life. It simply can't be described with ordinary words so they devised a specialized vocabulary to handle it. Some of their terms will do perfectly well for a world war fought 1,000 years later. The Vikings knew, for instance, that prolonged exposure to combat can goad some men into a state of uncontrolled, psychic fury. They might be the most placid men in the world in peacetime, but on the battlefield they begin to act with the most inexplicable and gratuitous cruelty. They become convinced that they're invincible, above all rules and restraints, literally transformed into supermen and werewolves. The Vikings called such men berserkers.

World War II was filled with instances of ordinary soldiers giving in to berserker behavior. In battle after battle, soldiers on all sides were observed killing wantonly and indiscriminately, defying all orders to stop in a kind of collective blood rage. They were found in every army, even among those that emphasized discipline and humane conduct. American Marines in the Pacific became notorious for their berserker mentality, particularly their profound lack of interest in taking prisoners. In his memoir, a Marine named Eugene Sledge describes once seeing another Marine in a classic berserker state urinating into the open mouth of a dead Japanese soldier.

Another Viking term was fay. People now understand it to mean effeminate. Previously it meant odd, and before that, uncanny, fairy-like. That was back when fairyland was the most sinister place people could imagine. The old Norse word meant doomed. It was used to refer to an eerie mood that would come over people in battle, a kind of transcendent despair.

The state was described vividly by an American reporter, Tom Lee, in the midst of the desperate battle of Peleliu in the South Pacific. "He felt something inside of himself, some instinctive psychic urge to keep himself alive, finally collapse at the sight of one more dead soldier in the ruins of a tropical jungle." Lee wrote, "He seemed so quiet and empty and past all the small things a man could love or hate. I suddenly knew I no longer had to defend my beating heart against the stillness of death. There was no defense."

"There was no defense." That's fay. People go through battle willing the bullet to miss, the shelling to stop, the heart to go on beating. And then they feel something in their soul surrender. And they give in to everything they'd been most afraid of. It's like a glimpse of eternity. Whether the battle is lost or won, it will never end. It has wholly taken over the soul. Sometimes, men say afterward that the most terrifying moment of any battle is seeing a fay look on the faces of the soldiers standing next to them.

Fayness might also explain the deepest mystery of the war, why the surrender everybody expected never came. The Germans and Japanese refused to surrender even though they knew the war was lost. Not until the last days of the war did either government even consider a negotiated settlement, not until they had absolutely nothing left to negotiate with. But then that's the point, a rational calculation of the odds is a calculation via the logic of peace.

War has a different logic. A kind of vast fayness can infect a military bureaucracy when it's losing a war, a collective slippage of the sense of objective truth in the face of approaching disaster. In the later years of World War II, the bureaucracies of the Axis behind the lines gradually retreated into a dreamy, paper war where they were on the brink of a triumphant reversal of fortune.

Not everybody succumbed to these fantasies, but those who understood how hopeless the situation really was also knew that defeat would mean accountability. And they had a reasonably good idea of what would happen to them if they were ever forced to answer for what they'd done. This is the dreadful logic that comes to control a lot of wars.

The American Civil War is another example. The losers prolong their agony as much as possible because they're convinced the alternative is worse. Meanwhile, the winners, who might earlier have accepted a compromise peace, become so maddened by the refusal of their enemies to stop fighting that they see no reason to settle for anything less than absolute victory.

In this sense, the later course of World War II was typical. It kept on escalating no matter what the strategic situation was. And it grew progressively more violent and uncontrollable long after the outcome was a foregone conclusion. The difference was that no other war had ever had such deep reserves of violence to draw upon

The Vikings would have understood all this. They didn't have a word for the prolongation of war long past any rational goal. They just knew that that's what always happened. It's the subject of their longest and greatest saga, the Brennu-Njals saga, or the saga of Njal burned alive. The saga describes a trivial feud in back-country Iceland that keeps escalating for reasons nobody can understand or resolve until it engulfs the whole of northern Europe. Provocation after fresh provocation, peace conference after failed peace conference, it has its own momentum, like a hurricane of carnage. For the Vikings, this was the essence of war. It's a mystery that comes out of nowhere and grows for reasons nobody can control until it shakes the whole world apart.

This was the course of World War II from the fall of 1944 on. After the Allies at last acknowledged that despite the decisive victories of the previous summer, the Axis was never going to surrender. That was when the Allies changed their strategy. They set out to make an Axis surrender irrelevant.

From that winter into the next spring, the civilians of Germany and Japan were helpless before a new Allied campaign of systematic aerial bombardment. The air forces and air defense systems of the Axis were in ruins by then. Allied planes flew where they pleased, day or night, 500 at a time, then 1,000 at a time, indiscriminately dumping avalanches of bombs on every city and town in Axis territory that had a military installation or a railroad yard or a factory. There was no precedent, even in this war, for the destruction on so ferocious a scale. It was the largest berserker rage in history.

The Allies routinely dropped incendiary bombs in such great numbers that they created firestorms in cities throughout the Axis countries. These weren't simply large fires. A true firestorm is a freak event, where a large central core of flame heats up explosively to more than 1,500 degrees and everything within it goes up by spontaneous combustion. Buildings erupt, the water boils out of rivers and canals, the asphalt on the pavement ignites. Immense intake vortices spring up around the core and begin sucking in oxygen from the surrounding atmosphere at hurricane speeds. The Allied raids reduced cities in minutes to miles of smoldering debris. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed, about 20% of them children. Tens of thousands suffocated because in the area around a fire storm, there's no oxygen left to breathe.

Out of idle curiosity, I've have been asking friends, people my age and younger, what they know about war. War stories they've heard from their families, facts they've learned in school, stray images that may have stuck with them from old TV documentaries. I wasn't interested in the fine points of strategy, but the key events, the biggest moments, the things people at the time had thought would live on as long as there was anybody around to remember the past.

To give everybody a big enough target, I asked about World War II. I figured people had to know the basics. World War II isn't exactly easy to miss. It was the largest war ever fought, the largest single event in history. So what did the people I asked know about the war? Nobody could tell me the first thing about it. Once they got past who won, they almost drew a blank. All they knew were those big, totemic names, Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Auschwitz , Hiroshima. The rest was gone. Kasserine, Leyte Gulf, Corregidor, Falaise, the Ardennes didn't provoke a glimmer of recognition. They might as well have been off-ramps on some exotic interstate.

What had happened, for instance, at one of the war's biggest battles, the Battle of Midway? "It was in the Pacific. There was something about aircraft carriers. Wasn't there a movie about it?" A couple of people were even surprised to hear that Midway Airport in Chicago was named after the battle, though they'd walked past the ugly commemorative sculpture in the concourse so many times.

All in all, this was a dispiriting exercise. The astonishing events of that morning at Midway, the quote "fatal five minutes on which the war and the fate of the world had hung," had been reduced to a plaque nobody reads at an airport with a vaguely puzzling name midway between Chicago and nowhere at all.

Is it that the war was 50 years ago and nobody cares anymore about what happened in the past? Maybe so, but I think what my little survey really demonstrates is how vast the gap is between the experience of war and the experience of peace. And there's another and simpler reason the war has been forgotten. People wanted to forget it. It had gone on for so many years, had destroyed so much, had killed so many. Most US casualties were in the final year of fighting.

When it came to an end, people were glad to be rid of everything about it. That was what surprised commentators about the public reaction in America and Europe when the news broke that Germany and then Japan had at last surrendered. In the wild celebrations that followed, nobody crowed, "Our enemies are destroyed." Nobody even yelled, "We've won." What they all said instead was, "The war is over." That was the message that flashed around the world in the summer of 1945. "The war is over. The war is over."

Ira Glass

Matt Malloy, reading an article by Lee Sandlin that appeared in The Chicago Reader.

[MUSIC - "REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR" BY SAMMY KAYE AND HIS ORCHESTRA WITH THE GLEE CLUB]

Act Six. Lessons From Ancient Wars.

Ira Glass

Act Six. Now this story from a preventive act of war committed 3,200 years ago in modern day Turkey, not far from Iraq. Or anyway that's how the story goes. After the Trojan War, this bloody, ten year war that left Troy devastated, the Greeks, who won that war, felt that they could not leave Troy unless they killed all the children of the King. They assumed that one of his kids might some day grow up to lead the Trojans in a war of revenge against them. One little grandson was still left, maybe three or four years old. And one of the Greeks, Ulysses, goes to the boy's mom to talk her into handing him over so that neither country will have to face another war. Needless to say, she's not too keen on that idea.

Mary Zimmerman is a Chicago director. She won the MacArthur Genius Grant. She won last year's Tony for Best Director. And she's now directing the play The Trojan Women, written 2,000 years ago, telling this story. She says that from the play's opening, it's hard not to think about very recent events.

Mary Zimmerman

It starts out with language that recalls our own ground zero really, really closely. And so we have this profound identification with the victims in the play to begin with. But then, when the aggressors come on, their language sounds so much like the language of our own administration that this strange flip happens.

But at the beginning, Hecuba is lying in this pile of rubble and she says-- and this is the really killer part to me-- "Never did we imagine the ground we stood on would give away, shudder, gape open and swallow all we had and were. We supposed that gods had built the city. We believed ourselves to be safe. Nothing is safe for sure but ruin itself. In billows of black smoke, the sky is obliterated. Daylight itself is in mourning. The air is thick with ashes and a foul smell like that of cooking meat, except we know it's human flesh, and gag and try to hold our breath."

Ira Glass

And then Ulysses comes on from the other side. And he's there on a mission to basically kill a little boy who the Greeks don't want to grow up and become a leader who will start a war against them. So he's on this sort of preventive war mission. And when he shows up, he's using language like, "You have to give him over to us. He threatens the peace. His life is a danger. We cannot allow it to continue to undermine the entire region's collective security."

Mary Zimmerman

Yes, it very clearly is a preemptive strike.

Ira Glass

I have to say reading the text of this, what's most striking is how sad Ulysses is to have to do it. He's the one who has to go out and get the kid from the kid's mother.

Mary Zimmerman

He is sad. He knows it's a disgusting job he has. But he knows he has to do it, and he's done it before. He knows it's his lot. The war machine is rolling over him as it's rolling over everyone else and forcing him into being this kind of person.

Ira Glass

It's interesting. As the whole discussion goes on when finally she gives the boy over to him, and then says goodbye to him, she pretty much admits that he's right.

Mary Zimmerman

Yeah, she does.

Ira Glass

That if he left her [INAUDIBLE]

Mary Zimmerman

--complex about the play and what the Greeks understood about war is that it doesn't end. And I feel that although Andromache really does hope that the little boy could grow up--

Ira Glass

And lead them to victory.

Mary Zimmerman

And lead them to victory. She also makes the argument, admittedly to try and save his life, look, his spirit is broken. "In a lifetime," she says, "could he rebuild, rearm? He's seen his father dragged through the dust. What kind of spirit do you think this little boy has?"

Ira Glass

So this goes on, this discussion. The play proceeds. And then when the Greeks finally kill the little boy-- one of the things that's interesting reading it is that they are just as wrecked about it as the Trojans.

Mary Zimmerman

They're completely wrecked by it.

Ira Glass

So let me ask you to read the speech. A messenger comes in, reports on what has happened.

Mary Zimmerman

"Through the crowd Ulysses makes his way, leading by the hand the boy who follows in confidence. The crowd is hushed, solemn, and here and there one can see tears that fall from brimming eyes. Ulysses recites the prayers Calcus instructed, summoning gods to witness what is being done. But the boy, knowing what then must come, of his own free will departs from the script to take command himself and steps abruptly out and over and into thin air to fall and plunge in an instant down through the delicate surface of the Earth to rejoin Priam in the gloomy kingdom below."

The messenger goes on, "After the boy had fallen, the throng of Greeks still weeping for what had been done in their name, turned to Achilles' tomb by Roecian waters, with what thoughts who can say? The future threat, if ever there was a threat, had disappeared. Would another death propitiate the whims or offend the gods as it would seem to offend any sane person watching? Greeks and Trojans weep together, appalled as the blood soaks into the thirsty earth that drinks the copious gore until it is gone. Thus was the rite performed.

Ira Glass

Mary Zimmerman. Her production of The Trojan Woman opens at The Goodman Theatre in Chicago in April.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Wendy Dorr and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook and Starlee Kine. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Katy Adone.

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